On lone wolves and leaderless resistance

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the last couple of weeks, I have focused more heavily on coding and verifying cases taking place between 2012 and today. A growing trend I have noticed is the rise in number of leaderless attacks. According to “Lone Wolf Report,” a 2015 study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 74% of domestic terrorist attacks between the years 2009 and 2015 have been ones carried out by a single person acting alone. The report allows readers to visualize how difficult stopping these acts of terrorism has become.

Today, “lone wolves” or “leaderless resistance” do not tend to speak of their plans with anyone. Even if operating in small groups, the characteristics of these perpetrators are written by Lewis W. Dickson’s 2015 case study “Lone Wolf Terrorism” as isolated, impulsive, and pushed to violence without any assistance (Dickson 2015, p. 8). Further, while the planning of a terrorist attack by an extremist organization can be infiltrated, the planning conducted by lone wolves today can go completely undetected especially because of the growing predominance of the Internet (Dickson 2015, p. 9).

In the 2015 February summit, former President Barack Obama addressed the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France and the growing fear around jihadist threats. While the summit remained in the scope of all acts of terrorism, it is difficult to shake acts committed in furtherance of al Qaeda, especially if their highly covered by the media. What I have found through tPP are how much more complex the non-religious attacks are. In most cases, the assailant is taken down by police, and if not cooperating, killed at the scene to protect those around him. The tPP is focused on the prosecution of domestic terrorist acts, so individuals such as Larry Steve McQuilliams, a claimed disciple shot down to protect those he believed were slandering the name of God, are not included in the dataset.

An example of this difficult issue is the case of Brent Douglas Cole. He was a claimed sovereign citizen who was charged with the assault of police officers who questioned him on his illegally parked motorcycle. We found him to have no apparent socio-political motive because the attack was out of anger, not to further his sovereign citizen idealism. Because he had no prior agenda to inflict harm and survived his take down, the reasoning behind his attack on authority has been determined as someone who was mentally unstable.

The theories behind all these motivations are interesting ones. In my previous blog post I wrote of the stereotypes of mental health and these crimes. McQuilliams believed he was doing good, and if alive, could have been diagnosed to better understand his decision of action. The reason why lone wolf perpetrators are so tricky is because of how undetectable they are, the intentions they may not be able to announce, and their belief system. While Cole was reckless and impulsive, his temper and irrationality got the best of him. This unknown of how to handle either of these cases could simply be because of the stigmas surrounding mental health clouding the ability to treat those who present signs of an illness. If properly educated, a path to decreasing the growing amount of lone wolf attacks could potentially be uncovered.

 – Brenda


Dickson, Lewis W. (2015). Lone Wolf Terrorism. A Case Study: The Radicalization

Process of a Continually Investigated & Islamic State Inspired Lone Wolf Terrorist. Malmo University, 1-40. Retrieved from https://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/19258/Lone%20Wolf%20Terrorism%20-%20Masters%20Thesis%20-%20Lewis%20W.Dickson.pdf?sequence=2

Southern Poverty Law Center. (February 11, 2015). Lone Wolf Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/20150211/lone-wolf-report

The Evolution of tPP

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the April of 2017, a group of approximately twenty undergraduates from various backgrounds slowly trickled in to an empty classroom at Miami University in the late afternoon.  That afternoon was the first meeting of the Prosecution Project.  Of those twenty-some undergraduate students, four remain with the Project now, in the fall of 2018. Since then, nearly 45 Miami University students have contributed in some way to the project, whether it be for a few weeks, a semester, or a year.

As the Prosecution Project approaches its second year, the outcome is slightly different than what was imagined at the start — I can say this with certainty, since I was in the room for that very first meeting nearly two years ago.  The Prosecution Project was initially conceived as a one-year ordeal, wherein the upcoming summer and throughout the fall semester, researchers would gather and code data, and in the spring semester, analyze and report on that data, with the outcome of a publication in a year’s time. We soon realized that this project was going to become much larger than that. More and more cases continued to be input, more detailed and intricate coding questions began to come up, and the scope of the project expanded exponentially.

Data collecting and coding continued well into the spring of 2018, with monumental questions of methodology, coding, theoretical framework, and other fundamental aspects of the Project being brought up at each weekly team meeting. It became clear quite clear that there would be no publishable output by the end of the academic year, but we did begin to expand the “deliverables” of the Project into mediums not yet considered. The blog was created in the spring, as a way to show people outside of our small team and its supporters what we had been doing for the past year. Preliminary analysis began on the data, even if it was nothing more than a framework for future analysis. We began to systematize the process of coding, including drop down menus in our dataset for faster and more uniform variable level assignment; creating teams of coders that work in tandem to independently code and verify doubly that cases were coded correctly; the organization of different files that accompany the Project, including source files for each case; and a number of people assigned to scrape new cases and cases we may have previously missed from large databases and other sources. The new plan was to have a complete dataset by the end of the summer of 2018.

When the fall rolled around, we soon realized that this plan just wasn’t feasible. We were adding hundreds of new cases each week, and of the then-nearly-2000 cases we had added, only about 800 had been coded and verified. Our new plan became intensive coding weeks in which we could complete as many cases as possible, followed by a semester of analysis and producing reports.

Now, in October of 2018, the goal has shifted again, and is, in truth, still evolving. The current plan which that we are working with right now is a multi-layered analysis. As of mid-October, we have over 2000 cases added, and of those cases, over 1000 complete and verified. Part of the team is currently working on continuing to code, while other subgroups of our 20 undergraduate researchers are doing analysis in multiple forms. We have a team of researchers running descriptive statistics and generating data visualizations, a team working on inferential statistics to generate correlations and regressions and other statistical results, and a team working on the beginning stages of Qualitative Comparative Analysis.

While the Prosecution Project has evolved significantly over the past 18 months and become a much bigger feat than we could’ve imagined that April afternoon in that first little meeting, it has not lost sight of its goal. We hope to not only begin publications and mini-reports of our own findings of the prosecutions of acts of political violence/extremism and terrorism, but also to make our database accessible to students as a tool for conducting research, and to the public in the pursuit of open and accessible knowledge.


Athena Chapekis is a senior sociology major at Miami University and senior team member and data analyst at the Prosecution Project

Evaluating “Success” in Terrorism and Counterterrorism

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Some of the great opportunities that the Prosecution Project (tPP) provided me include being able to find an interesting niche within the field of terrorism studies, employ the tools within the project to enhance my understanding of certain topics, and try to tackle challenging analytical problems through critical thinking. How the state responds to terrorism is a leading subject within the field, and as my interest in the topic developed, I’ve found that one puzzling issue is central to understanding counterterrorism initiatives: how do we best evaluate the success of terrorist organizations? As the war on terror persists through the century, it can be helpful for academics, policymakers, officials, and citizens alike to produce a more grounded dialectic by reflecting on the successes and failures of groups past and present. But measuring success requires us to appropriately define it and quantify it, and my contribution will utilize tPP to hopefully help frame and measure organizational success over time.

A good first decision that must be made when answering the question involves choosing a perspective from amongst the various actors. Do we define success according to the perspective of the terrorist group? The government? The individual suspect(s)? Each actor will judge a certain operation differently from the other. Fortunately, the cases in tPP can represent all of these perspectives, but to varying degrees. Since the goal of the project is to understand how the United States prosecutes individuals with crimes related to political violence, the government’s perspective will be front and center, and it will be the primary lens which I will employ. From the state’s view — and often from each actor’s view — success is multifaceted; that is, there is no single method to calculate success, but it involves a combination of equally important values. Here, Daniel Byman’s five measures of success (two of which are listed) provide a mostly functional, if imprecise, foundation for understanding the state’s perspective:

Freedom of operation. The first method looks at how secure a group may be in a certain location. According to the state, part of a group’s success means having “secure areas in which they can organize and plan with little fear…[and] can wait to strike at their pleasure” (Byman 2003). Certainly, an organization’s network will never be completely removed, but single operations can be shut down. The better an organization is able to operate out of an area, the more successful it is at perpetuating terrorist activity. At least some of this freedom can be operationalized through the city, state, and country variables in the tPP dataset. We unfortunately cannot discriminate between cases where a group claims responsibility for certain crimes versus isolated “lone wolf” crimes, which would erase issues of counting individuals with no attachment whatsoever to a group as being apart of an organization’s “footprint”. Even so, by focusing on one group’s activities in specific cities over time, we may gain insight into how well the government can curtail their operations.

Success in recruitment. The second method understands a group’s success in terms of the size of their recruitment base. Byman points to leadership structures (either centralized or decentralized) as being key to this method of approximation. Some groups, he states, rapidly decline as soon as their top leaders are killed or captured — like the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey or Sendero Luminoso in Peru — while other groups can remain virulent and active despite losing many leaders, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Decentralized leadership means that “for a group like Al-Qaeda, disrupting recruitment is a vital…measure of success” (Byman 2003).

This variable is notoriously tricky to account for, though, since we can only rely on estimates that can enumerate the size of recruits. To some extent, the tPP dataset can approximate this amount of involvement, although with a great deal of imprecision. Many organizations with fewer members and/or more centralized leadership may engage in plots alongside their operators, and will thus be deemed as co-defendants. If we pair this with the hypothesis that most recruits are not repeat offenders, this could be tied to our “Previous Similar Crime” variable that tracks individuals with multiple convictions. Accumulating both results could help us determine if organizations utilize recruits or existing members for their operations, with the sense that the more recruits they gain, the more momentum and “success” they may have.

These are just a couple of the ways in which the tPP dataset will reflect measurements for success. To be sure, there are clear disadvantages for adopting certain methods, but I believe that by wrestling with these imprecisions and finding better ways to make more accurate inferences, the data will better our understanding.

– Michael Thompson


Byman, Daniel. “Scoring the War on Terrorism.” The National Interest, no. 72 (2003): 75-84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42897485.

On the Coding of Foreign Affiliation

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

While the Prosecution Project (tPP) codes cases of domestic political violence for forty different variables, one that deserves specific attention is that of “foreign affiliation.” This variable can be best defined as a defendant’s affiliation with a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). FTO’s are defined as “a non-US organization that engages in terrorist activity that threatens US nationals or national security.” A list of FTOs, as catalogued by the US Department of State, can be found here.

The only options when coding for this variable are “no,” “yes,” or “unknown.” During the process of researching any given case, foreign affiliation is apparent almost immediately. Because involvement with an FTO connotes an individual’s terroristic threat, documentation of affiliation is both critical and consistent throughout legal proceedings. If there is any mention of, or allusion towards, any group on the state department’s list of FTOs, the case receives a code of “yes” for foreign affiliation. If there is no mention of any FTO, the code for the case is “no.”

Within our dataset, there are only a handful of cases which have been coded as “unknown” regarding foreign affiliation. The circumstances leading to the ambiguity of foreign affiliation in these cases can best be explained by confusion surrounding the events of the crime itself. A great example of this phenomenon can be found in the 2016 case of Michelle Marie Bastian. Bastian sent ISIS propaganda to her incarcerated husband, but this exchange of terroristic material does not insinuate collusion with an FTO itself. In this case, there was likely no direct contact between the defendant and the FTO; however, because there is a lack of evidence that clearly states Bastian obtained the propaganda from an indirect rather than direct source, the foreign affiliation category must be coded as “unknown” rather than “no.”

Following the coding for the variable of foreign affiliation, members of tPP code for group affiliation. It is important to recognize that a “no” for foreign affiliation does not mean that there is no group affiliation. While this may seem to be an obvious statement, our “group affiliation” variable is inclusive of domestic, as well as foreign, terrorist organizations.

As we continue with individual analyses of tPP’s dataset, I plan to examine the implications of foreign affiliation and its interaction with other variables. One relationship worth analyzing is that of foreign affiliation and citizenship. An interesting correlation may be made when pooling cases where the defendant has a foreign affiliation and comparing, within those cases, whether the individual is an American citizen or not. Furthermore, disparities in sentencing within the case pool of foreign affiliation may be juxtaposed relative to the aforementioned variable of citizenship.

Foreign affiliation, upon initial inspection, does not appear to be an overly significant variable relative to the others within our dataset; however, it’s presence, or lack there of, poses considerable influence over the interpretation of the prosecution of political violence cases in general. The relationships between foreign affiliation and other variables (particularly citizenship, tactic, and sentencing) likely possess valuable information regarding the factors governing an individual’s decision to participate in political violence, and how they choose to do so.

Affiliation with an FTO likely determines, or partially shapes the tactic and tactic variable which a defendant utilizes in offending. These relationships also likely reveal connections between the resulting convictions and sentencing of defendants and foreign affiliation, with notable regard to the proceedings of the US’s judicial system. Ultimately, tPP’s coding of foreign affiliation deserves to be analyzed in greater depth. When we consider the impact of FTOs on individual perpetrators, we reveal the severity of their danger to national security.

I look forward to studying foreign affiliation as tPP moves forward into statistical and analytical research and presentation of our finalized dataset for the semester!


Izzy Bielamowicz is a Junior pursuing a degree in Political Science with a double minor in Criminology and Philosophy and Law. Izzy has been with tPP since August 2018.

Want to join tPP for the Spring semester?

Now entering its 5th semester, the Prosecution Project (tPP) is currently recruiting a limited number of student researchers and analysts for the Spring semester.

tPP is a large data collection and analysis project that seeks to understand trends in how political violence, terrorism, and extremism are prosecuted in the US court system. The project involves a combination of locating cases, coding them together with team members and helping to generate and interpret quantitative and qualitative forms of analysis. Interested students can enroll as coders (via an independent study) or as analysts/writers (via SOC462).

There are two ways for Miami students to join tPP:

1.) We are interested in recruiting approximately 10 new student coders to help locate and code cases for the data set. This involves pairing up with another student coder, locating records and court documents, discussing the case, and finally entering information into an already established database. Student coders must register for 1-3 credits of independent study with Professor Loadenthal (credits will be in Sociology/SOC or Social Justice Studies/SJS). If you would like to join as a team coder, please complete the application here and our team will be in touch. Space is limited so please apply as soon as you’re able.

2.) We are also seeking up to 15 new students to join as analysts focused of the current data set to generate research suitable for publication. Students may enroll in SOC462 which will be an applied sociological research class, focused on terrorism studies, and based entirely around the tPP data set. To join this class, complete the application and email Professor Loadenthal to be added. Our goal is to publish a collection of scholarly research dealing with the tPP dataset in 2019, and the project director has already spoken with several journals about this.

No previous experience is required for coders or analysts, and the opportunity is open to students of all majors. Students student coders will be required to check in with the team twice a month and student analysts–those enrolled in SOC462–must attend that class and complete writing assignments. We are specially seeking Freshman, Sophomore and Junior students who can engage with the project for multiple terms and most team members have enjoyed their work and have sustained it throughout their their at Miami.

We are also interested in finding a few students with specialized skill sets including machine learning/artificial intelligence, grant writing, Digital content management systems and marketing/outreach. Students interested in working in these areas should complete the online applicationTo see our growing team of student researchers, visit us here!

Why join tPP?

  • Get real world experience dealing with court records, criminal indictments and data processing relevant for careers in law, public policy, intelligence analysis, security/law enforcement and government.
  • Learn and practice research skills including project design, data coding, qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, data verification, sampling and using software suites such as SPSS, R, Tableau and a variety of cloud computing platforms.
  • Have the opportunity to publish in high ranking academic journals, present at conferences, and generate connections which are helpful for graduate school and other post-college challenges.
  • Meet with professionals working on issues of security, crime, terrorism and extremism including local leaders in the FBI, US Attorneys Office and Cincinnati Fusion Center, and leading academics at Georgetown University, George Mason University, University of Cincinnati, University of Maryland and elsewhere.
  • Help to create the largest, ideologically-mixed data set for public use by researchers, academics and other practitioners.

Upcoming tPP Publication

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the 2019 “Emergent Voices” edition of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, myself and Athena Chapekis (two student researchers for tPP) will have our work featured using the Prosecution Project (tPP) database. Our article, entitled “The prosecution of others: Presidential rhetoric and the interrelation of framing, legal prosecutions, and the Global War on Terror”, investigates the link between presidential rhetoric and the framing of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in connection to the prosecution of “othered” and “non-othered” individuals.

“Othered”, in this context, refers specifically to individuals who are or appear to be Muslim, Arab/Middle Eastern, and/or foreign-born. We hypothesized the United States government will prosecute, charge, and sentence “othered” individuals more harshly than “non-othered” individuals and that this discrepancy in prosecution would be directly impacted by the framing of the GWOT by the United States’ presidential administrations.

In order to test this claim, we first created time blocks based on significant periods in the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama following 9/11. The first time block constituted immediate events in the five months following the 9/11 attacks (9/11/2001 – 02/08/2002). The events included the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” (AUMF) joint resolution (Congress 2001); the passage of the PATRIOT Act (Department of Justice 2001); and the authorization of military force in Afghanistan (Congress 2001). Notably, this block also saw the creation of the phrase “GWOT” as well as an increase in “othering” verbal rhetoric by George W. Bush (Hodges 2011). The second time block documented the remainder of the Bush administration (02/08/2002 – 01/20/2009). Events included the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“The Iraq War” n.d.) and the economic sanctions against Syria (BBC News 2018). Most of the presidential rhetoric in this time block was based less on verbal statements of “othering” and more on military action within the Middle East. The third time block examined the Obama administration (01/20/2009 – 12/31/2016). This time block included events such as the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2009 (Jaffe 2016); military initiatives in Syria (Obama 2013); and the establishment of the Islamic State’s Caliphate (Wilson Center 2016; BBC News 2018). Notably, Obama explicitly refrained from the use of “othering” language, but utilized military action in the Middle East. The actions of the presidential administrations served to strengthen the association of terrorism as a phenomenon inherent to Muslim, Arab/Middle Eastern, and/or foreign-born individuals through verbal statements, military action, and/or divisive administrative policies.

In order to test how these shifts in presidential rhetoric affected the prosecution and sentencing of “othered” versus “non-othered” individuals, we utilized the tPP dataset. We consolidated the codes of “Religion: Muslim”, “Ethnicity: Arab/Persian/Kurdish/Bedouin”, and “Citizenship: Non-United States Citizen” (specifically from a Middle Eastern country) to create a new code “ ‘Othered’ status”. If an individual fell into one or more of the above categories, then they were coded as “othered”. Using the date range described in the time blocks, we created a sub-dataset from 09/11/2001 to 12/31/2016 that included 520 double verified cases. We compared differences in “othered” and “non-othered” prosecutions in the three time blocks across the following variables of interest: length of sentencing, life sentence status, and number of people killed and injured by the crime.

Our original prediction that “othered” individuals would receive longer jail sentences than “non-othered” individuals was not supported by our findings. This can still be attributed, however, to the “othering” rhetoric of the Bush administration immediately post-9/11. According to the tPP dataset, the majority of these prosecutions were non-violent crimes, mostly immigration violations that resulted in deportation. These prosecutions corresponded to “terror sweeps” that occurred post-9/11, in which Arab/Middle Eastern and/or Muslim individuals in the United States were targeted by the government as “possible accomplices” to the 9/11 attacks (Akram and Karmely 2004). Almost all of the over 1,200 individuals taken into custody were found to have no ties to foreign terrorist organizations, and were either released free of charge or charged with felony immigration violations.

Interestingly, we did find that the prosecution of “othered” individuals significantly differed from “non-othered” individuals immediately after 9/11 and during the Obama years.

While we previously discussed how Bush’s rhetoric led to the “terror sweeps” post-9/11, there is less evidence to suggest a direct relationship between the maintenance of “othering” rhetoric in the latter Bush years and an increase in “othered” prosecution rates, as “othered” and “non-othered” individuals were prosecuted at similar rates. Moreover, Obama’s lack of othering rhetoric in speech did not correspond to a reduction of “othered” prosecutions; in fact, “othered” prosecutions not only increased, but increased differentially as compared to “non-othered” individuals. Further research may be needed to investigate the effects of direct speech as rhetoric versus indirect action as rhetoric in the legal prosecution of “othered” individuals.


Sarah Moore is a senior team member of the Prosecution Project and a former intern at Only Through US.


Akram, Susan M., and Karmely, Maritza. 2004. “Immigration and Constitutional Consequences of Post-9/11 Policies Involving Arabs and Muslims in the United States: Is Alienage a Distinction without a Difference?” U.C. Davis Law Review 38, no. 3: 609-700

BBC News. 2018. “Syria Profile,” April 24, 2018, sec. Middle East. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14703995.

Congress. 2001. Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. https://www.congress.gov/107/plaws/publ40/PLAW-107publ40.pdf.

Department of Justice. 2001. “The USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving Life and Liberty,” October, 4. https://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/what_is_the_patriot_act.pdf

Hodges, Adam. 2011. The “War on Terror” Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Jaffe, Greg. n.d. “‘Tell Me How This Ends’: Obama’s Struggle with the Hard Questions of War.” Washington Post. Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/obama-legacy/ending-war-in-iraq.html.

“The Iraq War.” n.d. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/iraq-war.

“Timeline: The Rise, Spread and Fall of the Islamic State.” 2016. Wilson Center. July 5, 2016. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-the-rise-spread-and-fall-the-islamic-state.

The fine line between informants and instigators: a look into entrapment in terrorism cases

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Getting involved in the Prosecution Project has been an incredible learning experience in research, data analysis, critical problem solving and decision making skills. During my research, I’ve become more and more fascinated in the cases where accused terrorists believed themselves to be part of a movement, or even worse, were forcibly taken from their daily lives and imprisoned, at the urging and manipulation of law enforcement officers. The federal government has been involved in elaborate schemes designed to “catch” would-be terrorists or spotlighting activities that would appear harmless if done by what America would consider to be an “average American citizen”. I’m intrigued by the how the Federal Bureau of Investigation chooses to use informants, how often entrapment really occurs in terrorism cases, and what the implications are going forward.

According to Wadie E. Said’s article, The Terrorist Informant, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is bound by certain conditions and practices regarding informants before the authorization of undercover investigations is possible. One of the main factors that must be considered is whether the target has any predisposition to commit a crime. Federal agents have the task of deciding the likelihood of criminal behavior to occur, a task that should be approached as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, human nature favors prejudice by instilling us with personal biases. The stigma surrounding Arabs and Muslims since September 2001 has resulted in increased FBI prevention efforts and controversial tactics intended to catch terrorists before attacks occur. Specifically, Said mentions the placing of undercover agents and surveillance of mosques. This tactic seems wildly outlandish given the seriousness with which we take our first amendment rights of free expression and religion. Yet the practice still occurs, creating room for the implication that the federal government believes there to be a strong connection between the islamic faith and international terrorism. The entrapment doctrine is in place to lead federal agents away from seeing terroristic activity or intent where there is none. The point of the doctrine is to focus on the conduct of law enforcement rather than only the acts of the suspect. According to Said, an entrapment defense has never been successful in exonerating a terrorism suspect in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since September 2001, informants have played a fairly significant role in terrorism prosecutions. Many of the cases in tPP’s dataset involve the use of informants in gathering intelligence and providing incriminating evidence of suspects. My main concern is how many of these accused terrorists were either coerced into participation or had motives and intentions forced upon them. This, of course, may be an impossible task since there is no reasonable way of knowing the absolute truth. However, scholars Jesse J. Norris and Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk published a journal article in 2016 titled Estimating the Prevalence of Entrapment in Post-9/11 Terrorism Cases that provides extensive research and data analysis on the subject. In their studies on specific cases, they admit that the involvement of informants obviously muddies up the scope of involvement and the seriousness of potential terror plots. From their conclusions, it appears that a majority amount of defendants they analyzed were unlikely to have been involved in true terrorism in the legal definition. Given the volume of terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, the implications of this result could be serious for numerous imprisoned individuals. Norris and Grol-Prokopczyk acknowledge the limitations of their study in that it’s impossible to say who would or would not have eventually committed crimes without the push of an informant. That may be the most concerning part, if we are unable to discern the truth from the all the mud, how can we prevent entrapment?

– Katie Reilly


NORRIS, J. J., & GROL-PROKOPCZYK, H. (2016). Estimating the Prevalence of Entrapment in Post-9/11 Terrorism Cases. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 105(3), 609–677.

Said, W. E. (2010). The Terrorist Informant. Washington Law Review, 85(4), 687–738.

On tPP’s Decision Tree

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Before a case can be added to our dataset it must pass a certain set of criteria, called the decision tree. There are five questions that we ask about each case when deciding if it is relevant to our project. The answer must be yes to the first three questions, and it must be yes for one of the last two for the case to be included.

        First, did the indictment for the case occur during our date range (1/1/1990 – present)? If it occurred prior to 1990 it is excluded. However, if the attack or incident occurred prior to 1990 but the indictment wasn’t issued until 1990 or later, the case can be included.

        Second, did the case end with charges filed in the United States? Our analysis is primarily interested in the prosecution of political violence, so this step in the decision tree is a very important part of which cases are included. It is responsible for the exclusion of the largest domestic terrorist attack in history, 9/11. Since all of the attackers died, there were never charges filed against them, and they are excluded. Another example is the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in our database, but his brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with law enforcement (Boston, 2014). He is excluded. This criterion also excludes any incident which may have been claimed by an extremist group, but a perpetrator was never caught and charged. This applies to many attacks in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that were claimed by the Earth Liberation Front or Animal Liberation Front but no charges were ever filed. On the other hand, a person may be included even if they never went to trial as long as they were charged. Benjamin Matthew Williams is an example of this. He and his brother, James Tyler Williams, were charged for murdering a couple because they were gay, but Benjamin committed suicide in jail before being sentenced. He is included in the dataset.

        Third, did the charges include at least one felony? Cases of political violence that result only in misdemeanor charges will be excluded. For example, the ELF is often known to use destruction of property and vandalism to further their political agenda. Depending on the extent of the damage, this may result only in misdemeanor charges. These cases are excluded from the database.

        The next two questions work together to determine why the case is being classified as terrorism. There are two ways in which a case can fit our definition. First, was the crime in furtherance of terrorism, extremism, or political violence? If yes, the case is included. This can be anything with a clear socio-political motive or something to aid a designated foreign terrorist organization. For example, arson attacks on abortion clinics are included due to an obvious political motive. Financial crimes with the intent of providing material support to a terrorist organization are also considered to be in furtherance of terrorism. One gray area when it comes to this question is how to separate the person from the crime. On April 22, 2018, Travis Reinking entered a Waffle House with an AR-15 and killed two people. Prior to this incident, he had breached security at the White House demanding to speak to the President and was claiming sovereign citizenship. While the FBI does consider sovereign citizens to be extremists, his actions at the Waffle House did not appear to be motivated by that identity. He has since been found unfit to stand trial and is in a mental hospital (Waffle House, 2018).  Because of this, the incident is excluded.

        If the crime in question does not have a clear socio-political agenda, it may still be included if it is designated as terroristic or extremist by any official state speech outlet. This includes, but is not limited to, reports from the Department of Justice or FBI, congressional testimony, and investigations by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the government arrested many immigrants from the Middle East on immigration violation charges. All of these incidents are listed as terrorism by various forms of state speech even though they are not politically motivated.

        Many cases in our dataset fall into both of the last two categories; they have a clear political motive and are designated as terrorism by state speech. Some of the most interesting cases to analyze will be cases that are included for only one of those reasons. The questions we will then have to ask are, if there is an obvious socio-political motive, why doesn’t the government classify it as terrorism? Conversely, if there is no obvious socio-political motive, why does the government call it terrorism? It will be important to investigate these questions as we move through our analysis.

-Lauren Donahoe


Boston Marathon Bombing. (2014, March 28). Retrieved October 3, 2018, from https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/boston-marathon-bombings

Waffle House shooting suspect not fit to stand trial, ordered to mental facility. (2018, August 22). Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/waffle-house-shooting-suspect-not-fit-stand-trial-ordered-mental-n903006

Are hate crimes terrorism?

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

The Terrorism Prosecution Project has been, from the beginning, dedicated to including all crimes with a political agenda, even if the government does not label them as terroristic. We feel that this is necessary to get a full picture of politically motivated crimes, given that whether a crime is called terroristic seems to depend on the characteristics of the attacker, rather than whether their motives were political.

This decision means that we have spent a great deal of effort determining the sort of cases to include in our dataset. One of these discussions has centered around whether to include hate crimes. The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Naming a criminal offense a hate crime has the practical consequence of adding an enhancement to the charges faced by the perpetrator. This usually means a longer sentence if convicted. The reasoning for this longer sentence is that a crime motivated by bias against a group targets not just the individual who is the direct victim of the attack. It terrorizes the entire community of people like them.

A similar logic comes into play with terrorism. Legal definitions of terrorism require not just that a crime is dangerous to human life. It also must “appear to be intended— (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” (this text is found in the definitions of both domestic or international terrorism in 18 U.S. Code § 2331). Offenses deemed terroristic are treated with more gravity than those which are not, because they are intended to affect not just the direct target (e.g. the person kidnapped or the building bombed), but a wider audience (e.g. the general public, a specific group, or a government).

Let’s consider an example. In October 1994, cousins Ricky Rivera Mungia, Eli Trevino Mungia, and Roy Ray Martin shot three black men in Lubbock, Texas, killing one. They were attempting to start a race war. Due to the group’s use of racial slurs and the testimony of a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, the men were convicted for the killings, with a hate crime enhancement. We have not been able to locate official government speech referring to this incident as terrorism. Why not? Does this not “appear to be intended… to intimidate or coerce a civilian population”?

The TPP team believes this incident has clear socio-political aims, and thus has included it in our dataset, even though the US government does not label it as terrorism. It will be interesting to see what quantitative analysis of our dataset will reveal about which crimes designated hate crimes are also called terroristic.

Note: as is the case with terroristic crimes, not every crime that appears to meet the definition of a hate crime is actually prosecuted as a hate crime, or called a hate crime in government speech. See this article for a more in-depth discussion of the practical reasons the government calls some crimes terrorism or hate crimes, and others not.

– Taylor

Mental Illness and Terrorism

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the United States today, the rise of mass shootings committed by a single individual continues to be a perplexing and worrying issue. In attempts to discover the motivation of the criminal and cope through the injustice, social media and news sources are largely inclined to respond and instill the label on a criminal as either terrorist or mentally ill. The dichotomy between whether there is a difference between either is complex, but essential to question if we ever want to understand and eventually help stop those who commit at large crimes such as the ones of the past years. If in fact what is causing this growing trend a mislabeling, there needs to be change to solve the issue of inborn prejudice against certain groups to properly address whether mental illness is at the root.

Terrorism is described by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (fbi.gov) In an article on Lawyer Monthly, the question of whether criminals who commit mass murders should be addressed as “mentally unwell” rather than terrorists is raised as a tough topic because of how little is still done in helping those with genuine mental illnesses. They acknowledge those who claim mental illness is a bad excuse for what these members of society do to their environment, but without an understanding of how to separate both terms, treatment or proper explanation will never be reached.

Mary Prior QC, a jury advocate, speaks on the stigmatization of mental health and its ignorance when it comes to the skin color of those initially suspected as terrorists. Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, will never give an explanation as to why he carried out one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history because of his death right after his actions. However, even with the little evidence as to what set off his violent behavior, mass media and political officials such as Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo used “psychopath” and “sick man” to describe his actions. She explains, “Had he been black, that label would have been “gang violence” or “urban decay”. Had he been brown that label would have been “terrorist ties.” As he was white, the label was “lone wolf.” (Prior, 2017)

NPR host Rachel Martin highlights this with guest speaker Shankar Vedantam. Their conversation shows new social psychology research conducted by Azim Shariff explaining the tendency to address mass shooters as either labeled terrorists or mentally ill; it is found, more often than not, not all these terms are reached for similarly in each case. This can be supported in the attack by Omar Mateen. His shooting in Orlando would have been labeled as “unstable lone wolf” if his profile were not drowned with the fact that he shouted Islamic State allegiance before opening fire at a gay and Latino nightclub. Vedantam addresses this “lone wolf” title would not be given to someone who’s pictures released were of a clearly ethnic man, and equally if he were to claim other religious beliefs. “For people high in anti-Muslim prejudice, people are very unlikely to perceive the Muslim shooter to be mentally ill. But people are completely comfortable in saying that the Christian shooter was mentally ill.” News outlets did not claim Mateen as a “psychopath” or “sick,” they instead used terrorist and didn’t question his mental competency as they did for Paddock (Barry, Kovaleski, Blinder, Mashal, 2016).

This topic is dense and a large question that might not be answerable. Still, I look forward to looking further into the use of terminology and analyzing the effects it has on what terrorism is considered to be in the United States. If the explanation of mass shootings is an increase in overlooked mental illnesses, inherited prejudice against groups might not be the best way to find solutions to these horrific acts.

– Brenda Uriona

Work Cited

Barry, D., Kovaleski, S. F., Blinder, A., Mashal M. (2016, June 18). ‘Always Agitated. Always Mad’: Omar Mateen, According to Those Who Knew Him. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/us/omar-mateen-gunman-orlando-shooting.html?_r=0

fbi.gov. (2018). Terrorism. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism

Lawyer Monthly. (2017, December 18). Terrorism Vs. Mentally Ill: Are The Mentally Unfit Prosecuted Fairly? Retrieved from https://www.lawyer-monthly.com/2017/11/terrorism-vs-mentally-ill-are-the-mentally-unfit-prosecuted-fairly/

Vedantam, Shankar. (2017, October 5). Classifying Attacks: Mental Illness Or Terrorism? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/10/05/555796306/classifying-attacks-mental-illness-or-terrorism